Whigham’s Wine Cellars
Whighams Wine Cellars
13 Hope Street, Edinburgh EH2 4EL
0131 225 8674 www.whighams.com
A la Carte
Starters £4.95 - £6.95 | Mains: £10.50 - £38.95 | Desserts £5.95
Cooking 6/10 | Service 4.5/5 | Flavour 4/5 | Value 4.5/5
Envy, if thy jaundiced eye,
Through this window chance to spy.
To thy sorrow thou shalt find,
All that's generous, all that's kind.
Friendship, virtue, ever grace,
Dwelling in this happy place.
Going to restaurants is like meeting people. First impressions are important. We may soon find that we have got them horribly wrong, though age and experience do tend to improve the decision making process. (Lord knows there have to be a few advantages to getting older.) Come home from a party full of strangers. There may be a few folk you might like to meet again, though you know you never will: others will have amused you with their vanity and pretensions, people to gossip or have a good laugh about.
Then there are the ones you have met a few times, fondness growing with more regular acquaintance. Though you sometimes have to be wary, as some on occasion may let you down. How many times does that have to happen before you drop them?
And then there are the old friends. You can't remember when you first met; you've known them for years; they've never deliberately been at less than their best and even if they were, well, we all have days when we're not on top form. And if you haven't seen each other for a long time, its great when they're back in town.
OK, I've probably overdone the analogy, but you get the point. Two days after lockdown rules permitted, we had lunch here, as we have done on many an occasion since Nick Henderson opened it in 1983. I searched for my previous review. It doesn't exist. How did I miss this? I also looked, as I always do, for reviews by others, to sneer at the quality of the writing, to tut loudly at poor punctuation, but mostly of course to see if there are any fascinating facts I can use. None to be found. The place is such an institution that nobody has written it up in years.
I did, however, discover the origin of the name. The lines at the top are the first verse of a Burns poem, At Whigham's Inn, Sanquhar. Anyone looking for a "mission statement" (how I hate that phrase) for a new business in the hospitality industry could do very much worse. The sign above the door boasts the year 1766. Unlikely, as the very first building in the New Town was started at the very far end of Thistle Street in 1767, but who cares?
The original place was small, narrow and subterranean. The atmospheric stone booths were built as wine cellars, hence the name. I believe at one time they were used by Young & Saunders, Edinburgh's equivalent of Fortnum & Mason, who occupied the premises which are for now home to Oddbins, across both Hope Street and Queensferry Street. The brighter dining room area was a later acquisition, a welcome alternative if you don't want to feel like you're in a hobbit's house.
At the moment it's a bit like visiting a chum who is convalescing. Fewer tables, obviously. Plastic screens. We'll just have to get used to these, as to face masks and visors. You don't have to wear a mask at table, but they do ask that you use one when moving around or visiting the facilities. The welcome, however, is precisely the same as you've known and enjoyed for years.
The food here has always been simple but good. A fairly short menu is in normal times supplemented with daily specials. Sensible chefs are playing it very safe just now to avoid stock going to waste. Very wise - only four tables occupied while we were there. So you have the Scottish staples, oysters, soup of the day, Cullen Skink, haggis croquettes or good smoked salmon. I note that the latter is served with something called germgrain bread. I don't know if that's gluten free. Not so long ago the menu advertised Smoked Salmon with Brown Bread: Gluten Free Option - Don't Eat the Bread! Society today is too humourless for that, I suppose.
For mains, from a menu which includes mussels and lobster, we had fish and chips - well cooked, if the fish was a little lacking in flavour, and a wonderful Goan fish curry which was the complete opposite. To finish, for now your choice is sticky toffee pudding or cheese, the latter served with a very good fruit chutney. All excellent value (if you pass on the lobster, the most expensive main is £16.95), and friendly staff, as always.
What we all must do now to bring ailing friends back to good health is to visit them. Often. Whighams would be an excellent place to start.
The name must have a connection with Whighams, the wine merchants in Ayr, latterly acquired by Corney & Barrow. They supplied the likes of Knockinaam Lodge in its early days and were one of the first to introduce Georges Duboeuf to the market.
Well, Ayr is certainly Burns country. Knockinaam at its best was splendid. I visited in the early 80s. Went back about 10 years ago and enjoyed it less, though the truly appalling weather may have been a factor.
I visited Knockinaam a couple of time shortly after it opened (early 80s) and when it was owned by Simon and Caroline Pilkington (he of the glass family). Very hospitable people, although the no-choice menu could be a challenge. The successor owners (not the current owners, I hasten add) did not have hospitality in their blood and could not have been more disobliging. I hear good reports about the current management.
I remember the Pilkingtons, though I’d forgotten about the no choice menu. I always thought that was more than a little arrogant. Even if I’m entertaining friends at home, I’ll always ask in advance if there’s anything they can’t/won’t eat. My wife becomes violently sick if she eats anything with cream in it, so that wouldn’t have been too clever.